Third Sunday After Epiphany (Year B)
TEXTS: Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. (Jonah 3:1-3a)
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)
Today’s Old Testament reading is, of course, a part of the story of the prophet Jonah. It’s such a well-known Bible story that I hardly need to re-cap the action for you. You know about Jonah and the great fish. But do you remember why it swallowed him? I’ll return to that question in a moment, but first I want to give you some background.
There are those who insist that Jonah’s story is literally true, and happened just the way the Bible reports it. Others say it’s an allegorical tale which conveys truth, but was never meant to be regarded as history. I tend to favour the second viewpoint, but I frankly do not think it matters a whole lot; it’s just a great story!
What almost everyone agrees upon is that Jonah himself did not write the book that bears his name. And if you look carefully, you’ll see that the Bible never claims that he did write it. It’s a story about Jonah, rather than a story by Jonah.
To be sure, there was a minor prophet named Jonah, who was the son of Amittai. He is briefly mentioned in the Second Book of Kings (14:25). The historical Jonah is thought to have lived around 750 B.C.
Our story about Jonah was likely written after the Jews came back from exile in Babylon, about 450 B.C. In other words, some unknown author wrote this story about 300 years after Jonah’s time. It is a short story designed to drive home a prophetic message to the people of the writer’s generation, and I think it is meant to be humorous. It is satire of the cleverest sort.
Now, a couple of facts are useful in order to better understand the story being told.
First of all, Nineveh was a city in Assyria—and it was the Assyrians who had overrun the northern kingdom of Israel and destroyed Jonah’s homeland. To Jonah, the Ninevites were wicked enemies.
Secondly, as far as Jonah was concerned, Tarshish—which is where he was headed when the fish got him—was at the very end of the earth. It was as far away as he could get from Nineveh.
When I was a kid, Timbuktu was the same sort of place; nobody knew where it actually was, but we all knew it was about as far away as you could get.
The story begins with God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh to urge the Ninevites to repent of their wickedness. But of course, that is the last thing that Jonah wants to do. He despises those people, and he wants God to destroy them, not forgive them. And he certainly does not want to be the instrument of their salvation.
So what does Jonah do? He goes down to the seaport of Joppa, buys the most expensive ticket he can get for a boat to take him to Tarshish. He wants to get as far away as possible—as if the LORD won’t be able to find him! For a prophet, Jonah doesn’t seem to know much about God.
We all know what happens next. God sends a great storm. The ship begins to sink. The sailors cast lots in order to find who is responsible for all this bad luck. The lot falls on Jonah, who then admits what he’s done. Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, and—reluctantly—they do.
Then, sure enough, the storm dies away, and the sea is calm. Then these foreign sailors respond by worshipping God and offering sacrifices to Him. Jonah, in spite of himself, has converted the entire crew.
But that’s not the end of the story. God summons a big fish to swallow up Jonah, who stays in the creature’s belly for three days and three nights. Not surprisingly, Jonah prays for deliverance, and the fish vomits him up onto the shore.
Now comes the part we read today. God speaks to Jonah a second time: “Get up! Get on your feet, and do what I asked you to do in the first place. Go to Nineveh and call the city to repentance. They are in a terrible mess, and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
So, Jonah does exactly what he is asked to do—to the letter; no more, and no less. He goes to the city and he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4).
The people listen. They believe him. And they all repent. In fact, their king orders them to! When the king of Nineveh hears about Jonah’s prophecy, he decrees that everyone—even the animals—must fast, and dress in sackcloth, and cry loudly to God for help. He says:
“All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:8-9).
And that’s exactly what happened. God did not destroy Nineveh, after all.
Needless to say, everyone was very happy … except Jonah! As the story continues through chapter four, we see that Jonah is anything but happy. In fact, he is beside himself with rage.
He cries out to God, saying: “I knew it! I knew this was going to happen. I knew that you would change your mind, because—blast it—you are a gracious and merciful God. Well, if you won’t kill the Ninevites, then kill me! I’m better off dead.”
Jonah is so full of spite that he would rather die than live on the same planet as the Ninevites. When God asks him why he is so angry, Jonah storms out of the city and sits down to have a good sulk.
Why is Jonah so angry? The short answer is because God loves too many people.
The longer answer, according to Jonah himself, is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing” (4:2).
Gracious and merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. Using punishment only as a last resort.
Well, that’s what we like about God, isn’t it?
And—just like Jonah—that’s how we expect God to behave toward us … right? If we are the children being spoiled, we want him to spare the rod!
But … that’s not always how we want God to be toward others … is it?
Jazz musician William Carter—who also happens to be a Presbyterian minister—tells the following story about something that happened during a flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to London, England:
A woman with a thick European accent got on the plane. She came down the aisle to the tourist section and discovered her seat assignment put her right next to a man with, shall we say, an African accent. She looked at her seat assignment; she saw it was correct.
She asked her seatmate, “I’m sorry, are you in the right seat?”
He smiled and nodded yes. She turned around to see if there were any other empty seats in the section, but she didn’t see any. So she tugged on the sleeve of the flight attendant.
“Excuse me,” she said, “as you can see, I’m sitting next to a person whose skin colour is different from mine.”
“Yes, ma’am, I can see that.”
“Well,” she said, “this is simply unacceptable. Is there another available seat?”
The flight attendant looked at her strangely and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s against our policy to move people unnecessarily.”
“You don’t understand,” said the wealthy woman, “this arrangement will not do. I have funds in my purse to arrange an alternative.”
The flight attendant said, “You do?”
“Yes, I do. Would you please go up to first class and see if there is an available seat? I simply cannot sit next to this person.”
The flight attendant shrugged her shoulders and walked up the aisle. A few minutes later she returned. She leaned over the European woman, tapped the man with the African accent, and said, “I’m sorry, sir, I hate to do this. I must make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you in first class.” *
The love of God wants to give every person first-class treatment. Sometimes, however—as William Carter points out—we get stuck in our same old seats.
Which, unfortunately, is kind of where Jonah gets stuck. The Bible says that, from his position just outside Nineveh, he waited “to see what would become of the city” (4:5). It sounds like Jonah is hoping God will come to his senses and nuke the place anyway!
Yeah. He’s having a real good sulk. However … What is God like? What is this God of ours like? You just heard it …
Our God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He knows Jonah is worth salvaging, so he causes a bush to spring up. It grows over Jonah to give him shade and cool him off. Jonah thinks this is pretty good, and he enjoys the shade. Things are looking up!
But then God sends a worm to attack the bush, and by the next morning the bush has withered away. Then a sirocco comes—a hot, blustery wind from the eastern deserts. The sun beats down relentlessly upon Jonah’s head, and once again he prays for death. What a hard case this guy is!
Then God tries to reason with Jonah. He asks him, “What right have you to get angry over this bush?”
“Plenty of right!” replies Jonah. “It’s made me angry enough to die!”
So God asks his prophet a final question: “How come—overnight—you can change your feelings from happiness to anger—all about a bush that you neither planted nor cared for—and yet you rage against me for changing my feelings about Nineveh and its inhabitants?”
So ends the story of Jonah.
Over and over again in Scripture, we are told that God is gracious, merciful, faithful, constant, and loving. Here, we discover that God is also, apparently, willing to change his mind. God retains the right to extend his grace even to those who don’t deserve it.
I think Calvinists refer to that as divine freedom. God is not obligated to behave the way we think he should. Notice that—again, just like Jonah—we also remain free. We can choose how we respond to God’s call. We have the freedom to choose God’s will … or to resist it.
Yeah. I’m sure Calvinists love this story, because it has much to say about predestination and free will. But you know, it also has a lot to say about the universal nature of God’s love. In this story, a ship’s crew and a whole city of Assyrian Ninevites choose to worship the One, living God of Israel—and they are accepted by him. Even Gentiles can be saved!
That is a bitter pill for poor Jonah to swallow. It’s quite a shock to his system to discover that God loves the Ninevites, too.
The message of this story—which comes out of the Jewish tradition—is that God is willing to love anybody. Even Jonah. Even you and me. The difficulty lies not in assuring ourselves that this is true. No. The difficulty lies in believing that it is true for everybody else, as well.
See, not one of us is beyond God’s reach. That is the message of grace.
Centuries after Jonah, that message of grace took human form in a person—Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom we call Saviour and Lord, the one we hail as Messiah and Christ.
In Jesus, God came looking for us. Through him, God calls us to speak his redeeming Word. Some of us willingly comply. Others pull back in reluctance. Some—like Simon, Andrew, James, and John—respond at once, impulsively dropping their nets and leaving everything else behind. Others need more persuasion.
But whoever we are, God waits for us—waits to receive us into his love. And whoever we are—if we will yield our hearts to his Spirit—he will make us into better disciples than we ever imagined we could be.
Thanks be to God. May the Lord grant us the grace and good humour to see his hand at work in our lives. Amen.